Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Things to Know for Hanging Out with People Who Learned English as Adults

This post is about people who learned the language as adults, and generally function fine in English in most workplace and social situations. But I have learned:

1. A lot of the time they can't hear shit.

English skills that are perfectly good most of the time can vanish when there's background noise, cross-talk, mumbling, or any other degradation, which a native speaker can intuitively filter out thanks to the redundancy in the signal. It's very similar to having hearing loss.

2. Sometimes they are fake laughing

If they're with a group of us, it's easy to miss the point of a joke that everyone is laughing at - either because of cultural differences, or because they missed a critical word. Maybe when they set out they only wanted to laugh honestly, but after a while many will go ahead and laugh along, to not be the odd one out.

3. If there are more than three of us, we forget they exist.

Even if we know they speak ok English, there's still that little bit of friction of not being sure if things will be understood the first time, and if there will have to be some awkward conversational repair. For most of us, that friction is enough to unconsciously drive us to interact more with everyone else. After a while we even are not making much eye contact.

4. Often, they don't know what the fuck is going on.

Lacking the ability to fully engage with the rapid-fire discussions and negotiations that go into group decisions, they often don't have an influence, and many times don't even know what the group is going to be doing next. If you can, it's nice to see if they have any needs or concerns to make part of the decision making, even though it takes extra time. But a minimal thing you can do is to keep them updated about what the group is doing.

5. Sometimes they just tune out.

If a person who learned English as an adult is staring into space while other people are talking, there's a good chance their language ability has checked out, at least for a moment. Being distracted or tired can shut off even very competent language users, and speaking English for hours can be exhausting, especially under challenging conditions such as background noise, so there may be a "Cinderella pumpkin" moment where their English just leaves for the night.

6. Jokes about their English mistakes are never as funny to them as they are to us.

It's very simple: jokes are less funny when they have to be explained.

7. Sometimes they want to have their English corrected, and sometimes not.

This varies a lot by personality and by situation. It's just important to remember that when you correct someone, for that moment you are placing yourself above them: you are the teacher and they are the student. And it can derail the conversation for a bit, especially if they are working on communicating something earnest. It's probably best to start off not explicitly teaching people but just focusing on communicating until you get a feel for what that person wants as far as teaching. (for some people repeating a sentence back the way you would say it, and then smoothly going on with what you were saying, could be helpful without being intrusive)

8. We don't know what their real personality is.

Maybe he tells long winded stories full of bragging. Maybe she's a bit of a thoughtful philosopher. Maybe he's a chatterbox gossip. Maybe she continually says terrible puns, even after everyone begs her to stop. We don't know, because these things don't come across when every sentence has to be carefully constructed. In fact, if you are not fluent there are only two personalities you can adopt that consistently work: quiet pleasant person, or highly physical extravert/comedian.

9. We are constantly sending unconscious signals of belonging.

Way beyond basic language competence, people from a shared culture have a rich body of shared references, turns of phrase, assumptions, and body language. So by definition, a newcomer to the language and culture doesn't know how to do that. Even when all the words they're saying are correct, the other signals they're sending may be off. If the person has even a touch of social anxiousness, it can make them very withdrawn. This is especially important to remember for people trying to use humour in a mixed group, such as a scientific lecture: if being immersed in your own culture is like sinking into a warm bath, being an outsider due to references can feel like an icy wind on the nipples. I just watched Deadpool, and it referenced Ferris Bueller, Rent, Bernadette Peters, and Regina, Saskatchewan, all just right and affirming for a 36 year old canadian dude like me - and all of which would be meaningless to practically everyone I met in Europe in the last two years. So the flipside of the cultural references that can connect people together is that they might be leaving folks out.

In case you haven't guessed, this is really me grumbling about my experiences trying to function in Italian. Actually it was the most wonderful gift and privilege to get to hang out in groups of Italian speakers, and everyone was super nice and helpful, even at the beginning when my speech was very primitive and a pain in the ass for all. After two years of learning and growth, though, I was painfully conscious of the decade or more it would take me to go from communicating basic stuff under ideal conditions, to being fluent and comfortable in the language and culture.

I waited to write this until I left, so people wouldn't think I'm trying to be treated differently. But I wanted to share the concrete tips, and little bit of compassion, I gained from being on the other side for once!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Favourite Bits of Deep Work by Cal Newport

I'm so excited about this book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World  by Cal Newport. I've already made a lot of changes in my practices inspired by it, and it's solved problems that have plagued me for years. I think that his view of the work that's core to my kind of job is essentially the right one:
Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
1. The ability to quickly master hard things. 2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
 Why should you listen to him?
In the ten-year period following my college graduation, I published four books, earned a PhD, wrote peer-reviewed academic papers at a high rate, and was hired as a tenure-track professor at Georgetown University. I maintained this voluminous production while rarely working past five or six p.m. during the workweek.
Why you shouldn't check your email inbox every 10 minutes (he says that the practice of leaving it open in the background was "a straw man", which was sure sobering!):
the habit of frequently checking inboxes ensures that these issues remain at the forefront of their attention. Gallagher teaches us that this is a foolhardy way to go about your day, as it ensures that your mind will construct an understanding of your working life that’s dominated by stress, irritation, frustration, and triviality. The world represented by your inbox, in other words, isn’t a pleasant world to inhabit.
Why you should schedule your "free time" too:
Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.
How to get into deep focus:
 add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration. ... the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. ... Your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high level of depth. For example, the ritual might specify that you start with a cup of good coffee, or make sure you have access to enough food of the right type to maintain energy, or integrate light exercise such as walking to help keep the mind clear. 
Using positivity to help you prioritize deep work:
identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours. ...  have a specific goal that would return tangible and substantial professional benefits will generate a steadier stream of enthusiasm. ... “If you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.” ... [L]ead measures turn your attention to improving the behaviors you directly control in the near future that will then have a positive impact on your long-term goals.
Planning idleness is super important:
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets… it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. .... you should follow Kreider’s lead by injecting regular and substantial freedom from professional concerns into your day, providing you with the idleness paradoxically required to get (deep) work done. .... the idea that you can restore your ability to direct your attention if you give this activity a rest.
Walking in nature seems to have a special status as a restoring activity:
attention restoration theory (ART), which claims that spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate. ...Walking through nature, by contrast, exposes you to what lead author Marc Berman calls “inherently fascinating stimuli,” using sunsets as an example. These stimuli “invoke attention modestly, allowing focused-attention mechanisms a chance to replenish.”
But other things work for restoring focus too:
Having a casual conversation with a friend, listening to music while making dinner, playing a game with your kids, going for a run—the types of activities that will fill your time in the evening if you enforce a work shutdown—play the same attention-restoring role as walking in nature.
An end-of-day shutdown ritual can help:
this ritual should ensure that every incomplete task, goal, or project has been reviewed and that for each you have confirmed that either (1) you have a plan you trust for its completion, or (2) it’s captured in a place where it will be revisited when the time is right. The process should be an algorithm: a series of steps you always conduct, one after another.....I quickly skim every task in every list, and then look at the next few days on my calendar. These two actions ensure that there’s nothing urgent I’m forgetting or any important deadlines or appointments sneaking up on me. I have, at this point, reviewed everything that’s on my professional plate. To end the ritual, I use this information to make a rough plan for the next day. Once the plan is created, I say, “Shutdown complete,” and my work thoughts are done for the day. 
 Don't give up if this is hard at first:
The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained. ... Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, Nass discovered, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. ... if you’ve scheduled your next Internet block thirty minutes from the current moment, and you’re beginning to feel bored and crave distraction, the next thirty minutes of resistance become a session of concentration calisthenics.  ....give yourself plenty of opportunities throughout your evening to resist switching to these distractions at the slightest hint of boredom.
What is your goal for your relationships, and how well does Facebook (which he describes as only useful for "keeping in frequent lightweight touch") support that? For him his personal goal is:
To maintain close and rewarding friendships with a group of people who are important to me. Key Activities Supporting This Goal: 1. Regularly take the time for meaningful connection with those who are most important to me (e.g., a long talk, a meal, joint activity). 2. Give of myself to those who are most important to me (e.g., making nontrivial sacrifices that improve their lives).
(based on this I have started a practice of more frequent, shorter duration Skype calls with my favourite people overseas, which I think does a much better job of helping with loneliness and homesickness. There's a nice exercise he suggests of going off social media for a month and seeing if anyone notices - I'm not going to actually do it, but just thinking about that was a wakeup call!)

A few more specific recommendations I have taken up:
  • Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times.  ... keep a notepad near your computer at work. On this pad, record the next time you’re allowed to use the Internet. 
  • Plan something to do in each half hour block of the day: "When you’re done scheduling your day, every minute should be part of a block."
  • And keep refreshing it. "On some days, you might rewrite your schedule half a dozen times. Don’t despair if this happens." "If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing." "Your goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs; it’s instead to maintain, at all times, a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time going forward"
All this has turned out to work extremely well with my brain.

The book has many other great ideas and inspiration, plus a lot of context about how real creators have set up their lives for deep work. You can get exposed to a lot of his ideas in this Business Insider blog post - although of course like all websites it's full of intentional fracturing distractions, so I would recommend just buying the book!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

How to Send an Email without Seeing Your Inbox

For most of us, including me, seeing our email Inbox tends to blast us with stress and/or temptation. There's a lot of things that can steal away our attention and energy from whatever task we're involved with - and in the worst case, hijack us entirely. Therefore I'm working on habits to be more like the productivity experts say is most effective, and only check a few times a day, in planned fashion.

But what if you just need to send a quick email in the course of doing a task? Well there are ways to send emails without ever seeing your inbox.

With an external mail program: Type "mailto:" into your browser's address bar and press enter. A "send mail" box will pop up, and, at least in my email program of choice, Thunderbird, you don't ever see your inbox. You can also create a bookmark: just create or edit a bookmark, and in the "Location:" field put "mailto:".

With Gmail: Copy and paste the following link into your address bar:
You can also bookmark it. Then even after you hit send you won't see your inbox - you can easily and seamlessly get back to your work.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

The Art of Nudging

On a friend's complaint about a PI not getting back to her about the next stop on a project, I was reminded of this neat advice from cognitive psychologist Dennis Pelli, on his great page of concrete writing advice:
Nudging. Collaboration is wonderful. The key ingredient is that you both must need each other. That's what will carry you through the hard patches. However, many manuscripts die sitting on the desk of someone who is planning to get back to it soon. How do you get it moving again? This is often described in moral terms specific to the personal association, but, after many years of sending and receiving reminders, I've come to think that it's a professional skill. Some people are good at it and they collaborate to produce many papers. Others aren't immoral; they just aren't good at it. Watching, from both sides, what works and what doesn't, I note that there is a trick to it. Start very very mildly, lightly reminding. And stay there. Don't escalate. This is counter-intuitive because, as a sender, one is embarrased by the implicit criticism of the reminder, and one feels a need to justify the action by moralizing and describing dire consequences. But all that negative stuff discourages the recipient who probably needs only the reminder and perhaps some encouragement. And, of course, do it. Always very lightly, but frequently enough to keep the paper in your recipient's mind. Mastering this unsung skill and collaborating with good nudgers — nudging and being nudged — may greatly increase the number of papers that you publish.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Some Hard-Earned Principles for Managing Data and Experiment Code

This is where I'm at now, after 10 years in vision science and many painful experiences with messing up data at some unknown time in the past, or having to redo grueling Excel-based analyses. If you can start this way from the very beginning, you'll have a nicer time than I did.

A lot of this has to do with what I would call "personal forensics": can you reconstruct where the data came from? Can you find the code for a particular experiment, even 5 years later? Can you rerun the analysis and get the same result? But it should also help to avoid getting snarled up even in day-to-day work, e.g. moving code and data between development and experiment machines.

These are framed in single-user terms, but of course this stuff would ideally be thought of in terms of lab policy (and usually you should follow the policy of your lab rather than these if there's a conflict). It's also limited by my experience, which is primarily psychophysical and eyetracking experiments - there are probably many special principles that apply for massive data files, that have many processing steps before they turn into delicious chart and statistical output.

Also wanted to say that a number of these were inspired by my friend Tom Wallis's blog, such as this excellent post about how to organize your folders. Here we go:
  • On the top level of folders, organize by project (rather than type of file), keeping everything for a particular project together.
  • As much as possible, use text files for all the raw data output of your experiment - probably in comma separated format (those open automatically in Excel, if they have the extension .csv, and are easily imported by every analysis package). Then the first row will be descriptive column headings (no spaces). I use separate files for separate sessions, and have each row represent a trial.
  • Put lots of identifying info into the data file name (underscores rather than spaces) so that it makes sense on its own - at least the experiment title, the participant ID, and the complete date. Some people put the time in seconds too.
  • After each participant, add notes about the run, including anything that went wrong and any observations they made, to the end of a text file in the same folder as the results. (and labelling the entry with the same convention as the data file)
  • Don't ever touch the raw data files, except to fix errors in them (and make sure the original has been committed if so.)
  • A column with a timestamp for each trial down to the second (such as the 7 digit number returned by the Psychophysics Toolbox's GetSecs) can be helpful both for unambiguously identifying trials, and for evaluating the time course of an experiment.
  • Generate intermediate numerical files when necessary, also in text format, and store them in a different folder than the raw data.
  • Do all statistics and summarizing in scripts, in something like Python, Matlab or R - something very general, that has a lot of support and longevity. Matlab is probably the worst bet at the moment, since it is the only closed source of the three (and expensive), and many scientists and mathematicians are deciding they don't want to put their time into adding value to a closed program that is not available to everyone (and thereby increasing lock-in).
  • Also do all the figure generation in one of those languages, with a single script that can go all the way from the raw data to the final, publication-quality figures with no manual tweaking on your part. Also generate them at the proper scale.
  • Output the figures in PDF format (or some other vector art format, but PDF appears to have the most support).
  • Keep the analysis scripts in a separate folder from the experiment code.
  • Put all the files (except the pdfs or other bulky binary files), including experiment code, analysis code, and data, under some kind of version control, such as Git or Subversion. If you have any folders with any variation of "old version" in the title, you need version control.
  • Commit whenever there's a big significant change, or important fix. Commit raw data immediately upon collecting, so that the uncontaminated data is always safe. It may not be to the forensic standard of a court of law, but for your own auditing of your data it is plenty of protection.
  • As is the software engineering wisdom, only commit code that you have tested at least a little and feel confident that it runs (because it's harder to retroactively investigate code that doesn't run), and write sensible comments to go with the version.
  • When there needs to be multiple copies of code on multiple computers, make sure they're linked up properly with version control (in Git this requires the Clone command), and then resynced when necessary.
  • If you can, have all your stuff, from every phase of your career, on one hard drive. Apart from big video files or giant data files, with hard drives getting bigger all the time (and search getting faster and smarter) there's no reason not to keep it together, and it gives you a target for backup.
  • The bare minimum backing up of data is automated, daily backup, of everything, to a device you control. Anything less than this is incredibly risky! Ideally it will also be incremental (using something like Time Machine on the Mac, Windows Backup on WIndows, or rsync on Linux), meaning that you can "rewind" to versions on earlier dates. That protects against cases of data getting invisibly corrupted and then backed up.
  • It probably helps a bit to have lots of incidental data redundancy, such as DropBox and additional copies of the repository on different computers/USB keys (and any kind of possibly-unreliable university- or company-wide automated backup). However, don't let those redundancies relax your vigilance with regard to the first type of backup. Do not spend any time on the "copy two or three folders manually once in a while" backup strategy, as it is almost worthless.
  • On the other hand, having additional off-site backup is a very good idea - earthquakes might not be an issue where you live, but I've known several labs that have been burgled. One method is to rotate complete clones of the hard drive monthly, say, and take the unused drive to some other location. If privacy isn't a concern, then an internet-based backup service like Carbonite may be a good solution for this too.
This was originally an email to a friend who's starting his Ph.D. in Psychology, and Jim Davies said I should post it, so sorry it's just a huge unstructured list on scattered topics.

There are two big potential speedbumps that I see to adopting these: one is learning those programming tools that can automate manipulating text files - for example, how to paste together output files from multiple participants to make one aggregate file, including stripping off the header row and adding a column for the participant. This all goes with Tom Wallis's principle of, don't touch your data "by hand", which I agree with, and is necessary to achieve the ideal of automating all the steps to go from raw data to submission-quality figure and statistical output. The other is learning to use version control software such as Git, which definitely requires conceptual investment.

For some people, learning this way of working might just be too much of a pain, and not worth it relative to just getting on with the science, in whatever tools they are used to. But if you think you can get past those speedbumps, I firmly believe it will pay off bigtime, and keep paying off throughout your career. It should let you spend more of your time doing the important, fun parts of science - and less time on resizing a figure by hand for the 27th time, or late, panicky nights trying to figure out where those spreadsheet numbers came from.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Numbered Life Advice from Some People I Admire

A lot of people I admire have been writing advice in list form recently! Here are some that resonate with me:

John Hodgman:
1. Try to be around people that make you feel genuinely happy

2. Disengage from people who make you feel bad and don’t care about how you feel

3. Do more favors than you ask for

4. Remember it always hurts to ask

5. Let people know when you are genuinely thinking nice things about them and be alert to the more frequent times when you are not thinking about anyone but yourself at all, and remember that we are all like this, and so if someone lets you down, let them off the hook. You are letting plenty of people down all the time in small ways and that’s how it goes being an individual human being.

6. Don’t sit on the same side of a booth in a restaurant even if you are lovers

7. Don’t leave a lot of voicemails

8. Please don’t write lots of long emails

9. Be nice

and that’s all you need to do.
Andrew WK:

To be a real human being, you must try...

1. To care about someone and something more than yourself.

2. To accept help from someone even when you believe you don't need anyone.

3. To cheer people up and bring them simple joy in times when it seems hardest to smile.

4. To bring loving comfort and sincere hugs in the midst of violence, pain, and suffering.

5. To recognize your own shortcomings and failings before lashing out at another's weakness.

6. To have true compassion when someone's in a bad mood, with the understanding that they might be going through a hardship you're not aware of.

7. To constantly remember that life is a fragile and precious miracle which requires all our collective effort to protect.

8. To humbly work to improve our own defects and cut everyone else a little more slack.

9. To remember that being a loving and positive person isn't always easy, but it's always worth it.

10. And lastly, to never give up on the power of humanity and on your own potential to be a caring, loving person.
(something I like is that this was his reaction to a list of "how to be a real man", rejecting all that jazz)

Werner Herzog:

1. Always take the initiative.
2. There is nothing wrong with spending a night in jail if it means getting the shot you need.
3. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey.
4. Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief.
5. Learn to live with your mistakes.
6. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern.
7. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it.
8. There is never an excuse not to finish a film.
9. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.
10. Thwart institutional cowardice.
11. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
12. Take your fate into your own hands.
13. Learn to read the inner essence of a landscape.
14. Ignite the fire within and explore unknown territory.
15. Walk straight ahead, never detour.
16. Manoeuvre and mislead, but always deliver.
17. Don't be fearful of rejection.
18. Develop your own voice.
19. Day one is the point of no return.
20. A badge of honor is to fail a film theory class.
21. Chance is the lifeblood of cinema.
22. Guerrilla tactics are best.
23. Take revenge if need be.
24. Get used to the bear behind you.

Justin McElroy:
-You can be funny and kind or funny and cruel. The second one is easier, but the first one is worth it.

-Dip the french fry in the Frosty. Go on, try it.

-Habit is a powerful force we forget about until it’s turned against us. Be careful which ones you create.

-You will remember the most embarrassing crap you do in your life forever and in perfect clarity. Everyone else will remember the kindest things you do. It all comes out in the wash.

-If you’re doing a remote podcast, it’s worth it to record audio locally and mix it together. Trust me on this one.

-You’re the only one who can let go of your grudges. It’s worth it, I promise. They’re not doing you any good.

-Doing the good, brave, kind things can feel silly if you let your internal critic get in the way. Reminder: No one else can hear that guy.

-I can count on one hand the number of times putting out negativity has brought me back something worthwhile and even when it works it feels terrible.

-Want to be better-liked immediately? Today? Right now? Use people’s names. Ask more questions. Make the person you’re talking to feel important without empty flattery.

-Don’t correct people. Unless their wrongness will lead to them getting hurt or hurting someone else. You’ll have a fleeting sense of superiority and they’ll resent you. Nothing worthwhile comes of it. This used to be so hard, but now I cringe when someone else does it.

-Cooking a Hot Pocket in the oven may seem counterintuitive, but man, it can really elevate it.

-Learning to appreciate things you don’t initially enjoy is the power to fill the world with stuff you like.

-Empathy is the final step of maturity. It can take some work, but you’ll be shocked how much easier the world is to navigate when you remember to use it.

-You’re probably not drinking enough water.

-There’s no narrative to your life, no arc, no reward for achieving all the things you want. That kind of thinking is a recipe for a you-centric world view and is a very lonely road. Focus instead on the role you play in the stories of others. When I was young, there was an old man named Brady at our church who always had gum. No matter what, Brady always had gum that he offered up freely. When he died, it devastated our youth group and I still remember him two decades later. Brady might have only played a bit role in all our life stories, but by playing it with generosity and kindness he achieved a sort of immortality. Putting others first with a cheerful heart isn’t easy, but because of that, even the smallest acts can leave an incalculable impact.

-Don’t read the comments. And when you do, only reply to the nice ones.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Checklists Will Save Your Butt

One of the things that makes preparing for travel the most stressful for me is worrying about forgetting to pack something. There's too many things to keep track of, and I have in fact forgotten very important things on numerous trips. Including my underpants. (which is why to this day some of them have tags in swedish)

This time I'm using checklists, and it's made all the difference. Whenever I thought of something that I need to remember to take on my trip, I added it to a "to do" list on my phone. Then in the last frantic minutes before I left all, I had to do was to go through the list.

This is an obvious idea, but I think it's more powerful than I realized. I read a whole book about it, called the Checklist Manifesto. It wasn't very good, but I got the main point, which is that you should use checklists. Super highly trained professionals with thousands of hours of experience, like airline pilots and surgeons, use them, so there's no shame in it.

I keep a checklist for things to pack, and one for leaving hotel rooms, and one for before I run a participant on my experiment and one for after they finish. I'm sure I'll find lots more uses for them in the future.

The most important point is that it be a physical list, and that you physically check things off. A "mental checklist" doesn't count. At all!

The whole point is to stop that feeling of constantly rereminding yourself of important things - what David Allen in Getting Things Done calls "open loops". That's stressful, and that takes away from your focus. Also, your brain sucks at it.

But really keeping that list, and really checking it off, always takes willpower for me! There is always a voice in my head that says, "this time, you've got it - you don't need to actually go through the list". And that's when things go south.

Look at it this way: say you have a list of 8 items. Even if you would only forget one item, one time in five (although for me it's more like one time in one) that one item will still be worth the few seconds it takes to check it. Especially if that item is your passport or visa. I'll just keep telling myself that.

More checklist tips:
  • Start making it right away. As soon as packing is on your mind. And throw things on there as soon as you think of them, thus closing the "open loop".
  • If you use an electronic checklist, like a "to do" app on your phone, then it is easier to always have on hand. I use a nice basic open source one called Simply Do.
  • With an electronic one you can also reuse it: simply uncheck all the items.
  • Keep it pruned, complete and current. Try to make sure every single thing you need to remember is on there, and don't have a single thing on there you don't need to remember (at least don't leave it unchecked)
Trusting your checklist is hard, and wariness of false security is a good instinct. But I think that's where you should focus your effort, on your checklists, not on constantly mentally scanning for things you've forgotten: even with a simple trip, there are too many things, and stuff will fall out, like a boarding pass from a loosely-held boarding pass envelope. (something else that has happened to me!)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

My Intellectual Property Ethics

If I'm a fan of something, I should pay for it.

Books, music, movies, TV shows, videogames, software, comics, blogs, podcasts. I feel passionately about a lot of them. How can I call myself a real fan if I'm not helping the people who made it to earn a living?

I want to participate in a system where people who make things I love can do that full time, and make more things in their lifetime. And not only that, but to think bigger: to potentially pursue projects that take bigger outlays of cash and time.

I want to take whatever I'm doing, as far as paying for media, and imagine that everyone else is doing that, and ask myself if that works as far as sustaining the art I want to exist.

The machine I'm writing this on gives me the ability to access most of the work by the artists I like for free. But it also allows me to instantly and almost effortlessly send money to them. I should use that second capability too.

This is my core idea, and it has some corollaries:

- Before I'm a fan of something, I don't have to pay for it. This can qualify as sampling. So a certain percentage of my media intake is sampling. But although I don't have a hard criterion for when I cross the line to being a fan, at some point I can't deny it. There's no point in being slippery or lawyery about your own moral intuitions. I already more or less live this way: maybe I'll listen to a song 2 or 3 times on youtube, but if I crave hearing it more I'll buy it on iTunes. You know when something has become a part of your mental landscape, and part of your identity, even in a small way. At that point the artist should get paid.

- I need to pay for things that the artists don't require me to pay for. For example, clicking on the optional donation button.

- Sometimes, paying the artist will take the form of paying for something that is not the primary thing I love. For example, I own the web comic Perry Bible Fellowship in book form, even though I still mostly only read it online. I will buy books by podcasters, and t-shirts at concerts. As long as it's part of a model that can pay their rent.

- If the version of something that's available to buy is crippled in some way I don't like, for example Amazon books that are blocked by software from being lent to friends in the way physical books can be, or iTunes TV shows that refuse to play on non Apple devices, I will pirate a version of it that is not crippled in that way. After I have bought it from one of those websites. (I actually do this! It feels weird!)

- Artists can't make a living from Spotify and other music streaming services, so that doesn't count.

- How much money the artist is already making isn't relevant. It's not up to us to decide when someone has been over-rewarded for what they do.

- The fact that the record company or other media industry is taking a cut isn't that relevant (and keep in mind that they do take risks investing in artists, and you probably only know about most of the things you're a fan of because the company paid to market them. They deserve to get paid too).

- That said, I feel the moral intuition more strongly with methods of support that are more direct. When I pay for a Louis CK special, the $5 goes right to him. (and he controls how he pays out expenses etc) If I have a choice, I'll choose a payment method where more of it goes to the people doing the imaginative work.

- In theory, you can "pay" for certain things with your attention to the advertising that supports them (ad-supported is not the same as free). I don't like to pay for things that way, so I have to use money. In the past I've watched streaming TV shows with an ad blocker, which is obviously not a sustainable model. At least for the ones I'm a fan of, like Parks and Rec, I plan to pay for it in the future, via buying it on iTunes. And if I am spending time on things that I'm not a fan of, just because it's streaming for free, why am I doing that? Time is more precious to me than money these days.

- For certain things, the payment that is desired is genuinely kudos and nothing else. In that case, I need to make sure they get those kudos from me. For example the free and open source software movement, such as the makers of scientific tools who ask only that they are cited (which is a form of currency in the scientific world). So I will cite them. Click to upvote, leave reviews, etc.

- Buying stuff used counts, as does taking them out of the library, because the used resell value of something and the library demand contribute to the original value of it.

- I should encourage other people who are fans of the things I'm fans of to also pay the artist. For example, I won't make copies of stuff I've bought for people, except as far as I can justify it as a sample. (that's how I can justify mix CDs - barely)

I've wanted to come up with some kind of consistent code for myself for a long time, as I've seen the harmful effects of pirating behaviour (like my own) on my favourite artists' ability to make a living. And I've seen how so many artists are making it easier, and more morally clear, than ever before to pay them, people like Aimee Mann, Radiohead, and Louis CK. It was also important that it be pretty close to my existing behaviour and intuitions.

Picture this: you randomly get a chance to meet someone who makes some of the art you have loved for years. That is for sure going to happen to you, and more than once, in a long life. You're going to be excited about it, right? Imagine how you will feel shaking their hand knowing that you paid for their hard creative work, vs. if you didn't. (did you know that people actually try to get musicians and comedians to sign burned CDs? Don't be that person!)

If I'm a fan of something, I should pay for it.

Monday, September 22, 2014

How I Started Learning Italian For Real

Right now, learning Italian, is the first time I've ever attempted to learn a language for real. Despite years of french immersion, starting at the age when my brain was supposed to be extra malleable, I cannot speak french, and the few years of high school German taught me barely enough to understand the lyrics to Autobahn (although the same amount of classes taught many of my German friends English!). In my cosy monocultural home town, people I might actually talk to in a foreign language seemed impossibly far away - even francophones - and so they were just school subjects I had to do, like Earth Sciences. But unlike Earth Sciences, my language marks were consistently crappy. I even tried to frame it as a personal quirk: That's my thing! I just can't learn languages!

The reality is I never seriously tried. And now I have a big motivation in the form of wanting to function in Italy. And do better than just function! I want to have an awesome time here! I also feel empowered by the fact that now that I'm older, I have a much better sense of how I learn, and what motivates me. Finally, it's a different world as far as possibilities for learning via the internet. All this made me gung ho about the idea of learning Italian, to the point that it surprised me!

I had two goals for the amount of Italian I wanted to learn: number one, emergency Italian, that would let me communicate if things went wrong. Number two, to speak enough that Italians would find it cute and be willing to talk to me. So here are the three things I did to begin to learn Italian, a few months before I left North America.

1) Duolingo
This is a free website, and also an app for iPhone and Android, that teaches languages by quizzing you constantly on the language, in short modules that escalate in difficulty. There are four main types of queries you get, all intermixed: translating words and sentences from your own language to the target language, translating them from the target language to your language, transcribing sentences spoken by the speech synthesizer, and speaking written (and spoken) sentences. The experience is very similar to a mobile game, and in fact is nothing short of genius in how it uses that same addictive stream of feedback, happy little "bling!"s every few seconds, to keep you coming back. It's a great way to fill a few minutes chilling out - I have even procrastinated doing it.

Another big factor in making it fun is the motivation to complete modules, much the same as beating levels in a video game. Which also corresponds to one of my favourite educational concepts, mastery-based learning. Unlike in a classroom, you proceed completely at your own rate, but you don't progress until you have mastered (for some definition of "mastered") the concepts in that module.

Modules don't stay completed, however, and after a certain time period you have to go back and practice them some more. This occurs on a logarithmic time scale, which means it's an example of another educational concept I believe in, spaced repetition learning, such as in the powerful flashcard program Anki. Basically the words and grammar concepts you had the most trouble with keep coming back. They come back frequently at first, and then at longer and longer intervals. I have found this to be very effective for memorizing vocabulary, phrases, and even grammatical concepts. Things that seemed weird and difficult at first, after many repetitions starts to seem like second nature - and because of the fun factor I actually do those repetitions.

I can't stress this enough: I actually do Duolingo. Learning a language takes so much practice, and I am historically very bad about practice. From an app that collects these stats on my phone, over a period of 155 days I used Duolingo an average of 22 minutes a day, or a total of 57 hours. I only skipped it entirely on 17 of those days, and my longest break was 3 days. Your mileage may vary, probably related to how addictive you find mobile games (for me, a lot!).

From my experience with Anki, I think there's particular memory benefits to doing a little at a time over the course of many days. I like to think of every night's REM sleep like a hammer blow driving understanding a little deeper into my brain.

I love how, like a videogame, you can make hundreds of mistakes with no consequences. I think vanity about my smarts was at the root of my difficulty with language learning. You can't avoid making mistakes, you just have to accept that your learning is sloppy and imperfect, and yet you gradually remember more and more. I have a theory that what burns something into your memory best is embarassment over not knowing something you are supposed to already know.

What is Duolingo bad at? Surprisingly, not grammar: it has no particular tutorial text, so it just throws new concepts at you, and they're often baffling at first. However, I think this is a wonderful way to learn too, since it makes me curious to learn about a grammar concept - so I can get past that fricking past imperfect unit. I have actually found myself googling italian grammar concepts when I was supposed to be working. I hate grammar!

But Duolingo is poor for spoken comprehension, and for speaking (although it attempts to help with those a little) Therefore it's not enough on its own. But I also did:

2) A beginner Italian class at the Dante Alighieri Society.
10 weeks, 2 1/2 hours a week. This was great for a few reasons: it forced me to actually speak out loud to another person, it got me into the adorable Italian cultural center in Cambridge MA, the Dante Alighieri Society, and I got taught by an actual Italian from Bologna. She gave us her recipe for Spaghetti Bolognese!

I appreciated very much how the curriculum for this level 1 class was constructed as a bare minimum survival kit: how to order food and drink, how to greet, numbers and letters, and basic small talk. On the wall for us to stare at every day were critical beginner phrases like "Cosa significa ___" (what does ____ mean) and "Puoi ripetere?" (could you repeat?) There was even a lesson on how the train system works in Italy. She made us all write a statement of who we are, where we're from, what we do for a living, etc, which has proven to be very helpful when I'm introduced to people. We watched web videos and listened to songs, all of which helped me to get the flavour of the country I was about to move to.

The big weakness of the course is in memorization: I simply don't remember enough of what was taught. There is no systematic reminding, on a spaced schedule, as in Duolingo - if I wanted to have that effect, I would have to construct my own self testing schedule for the weeks and months after the course ended (is this what people call "studying"?) It's fascinating, and frustrating, to think about all the thousands of hours of learning, over my decades of schooling,  which was then lost due to the absence of spaced repetition! So Duolingo, with its ability to ram hundreds of words of vocabulary - and dozens of weird grammar rules - into your brain, for the long term, is an amazing complement to this course.

Finally, I also watched,

3) Movies in Italian with Italian subtitles
This is me knowing myself, and how much I love to watch movies. I realized this was a way I could justify catching up on all the trashy ones I missed. Like the 3rd pirates of the caribbean movie. For the first little while the language just washed over me mostly, although I would look up words on my trusty Google Translate app when they recurred a lot. So one of the first words I learned was "Andiamo!" ("let's go!") because of how much they shouted it in Pirates of the Carribean.

So I mostly focused on special-effects-heavy American films dubbed into Italian. I knew this wasn't my time to get into slow, bummer artistic films - the movie can't also feel like work.

Where can you get such films while still in North America? You can easily buy them on Amazon, for about $10-$16 each, by searching for "italian edition" or "italian import". If you're looking for a particular film (like My Neighbour Totoro), you can look up the name in the language of choice ("Mio Vicino Totoro") You have to be a bit careful with european dvds, because you either need to use a region-free player (which most computer dvd players are not) or use up some of a limited number of region switches (although this can be hacked) Also, good quality dvds of italian movies, like the Criterion editions, usually have italian subtitles.

The other route is to bittorrent the italian dubs (search for "ita" or whatever the abbreviation is for your language), and then download the subtitles to go with them, from sites such as and Put the subtitle file in the same folder as the video file, rename it to the same as the video (everything but the extension), and then open the video in VLC. It will automatically be available that way under the "Subtitles" menu whenever you play it. Of course there are a lot of issues with subtitles being out of sync, but you can fix that with both the subtitle delay feature of VLC, or, more permanently, with a subtitle editing program, such as Jubler on the mac. Sometimes the subtitle is set for a 30 fps film and you get a 24 fps video, and then it just won't stay in sync (unless you do much more complicated, fiddly maneuvers).

Even though it might not be as efficient as classes or talking to people, and not as enjoyable as my more typical activities of sittin' around or rewatching 30 Rock, it worked for me as a way to make absorbing the language as pleasurable as possible. I discovered that my roommate in the States was only really excited to watch American romantic comedies with me, so that is why I have now seen, only in Italian, 27 Dresses, The Lake House, The Vow, and Letters to Juliet. Those movies were terrible. But figuring them out - and making fun of them - with my roomie was very fun.


I don't think simple exposure to the language alone does much, otherwise I would be fluent in Japanese from all the hours of 90s anime I watched in high school. Neither would a once-a-week class, or a mobile phone app. But with these three approaches working at once and cross-pollinating, it adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

Things I didn't do that might have helped: online language tandems, Rosetta Stone software, News in Slow Italian, Michel Thomas CDs.


Now that I'm in Italy, of course, there are many more opportunities for learning - and more frustrations too. This preparation didn't take me that far. But I can confirm that it did achieve my two objectives, of getting me through emergencies - of which I've had a couple - and getting me chatting with Italian speakers. If anything, the benefit of my prep was giving me an inflated sense of confidence such that I would attempt to strike up conversations, even at the beginning. Sincerely glad that Italians are both friendly, and absolutely unhesitating in correcting mistakes!

It's going to be a long, long, long, long, road to any kind of competency, especially in spoken italian, but I'm getting a lot of great support, and already some great payoffs, like new Italian friends and watching La Strada in the original language (Italian circus clowns!) The best part is knowing that I'm still capable of learning something totally new. I just have to: 1. throw a huge number of hours at it, 2. pay attention to how I actually learn, and 3. get comfortable with making lots and lots of mistakes.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

The Best of How I Work

This blog now has over a hundred entries, and there won't be too many more. It's basically served the purpose I hoped it would, which is to capture the working processes I was customizing for myself, mostly derived from David Allen's Getting Things Done but also a few other sources (and also to serve as a kind of release valve so I didn't bore people with this stuff in conversation) The problems in my life that this level of tactic can solve are pretty much solved. Which I'm delighted about; it's a happy reason to be wrapping this up! So right here is the place to put links to the good stuff for anyone who might stumble upon this blog.

Some essentials of my personal system, things I've figured out that I make use of almost every single day:



And then some more posts I think are valuable:

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

International Travel Mistakes I Must Never Make Again

I screwed up big time with my travel this christmas. With the Ontario snowstorm, a whole lot of people had it worse, and the good news is that I got to each of my destinations (my parent's house in Canada, and my home in the USA) within 12 hours of my target arrival time. But I missed connections and had to stay overnight in an airport hotel both ways, went through security 6 times and customs 4 times, and both ways my body experienced more stress than it ever has since my thesis defence.

What really stings is that these were all avoidable mistakes, some of them even mistakes that I've made before. I must not make them again.

I planned my departures for later in the day than they needed to be.
I had a 3 pm departure for my long day of westbound travel, which I was pleased about because it seemed nice and relaxed. But that meant that there was no wiggle room for missing flights, which can cascade, and in fact I missed the last flight to my final destination. Then I did the same thing with leaving at 10 am eastbound. Early morning travel to airports suck, but it provides a margin of error. I would even consider red eye flights now, since they have the whole day for delays.

I had more connections than were absolutely necessary.
Every connection you make increases the misery and risk exponentially. I would now pay hundreds more dollars to avoid what I went through happening again.

I connected through snowy places when I didn't have to.
 Does everyone else but me know this tip? In any case this happened to me 3 or 4 years ago with Calgary - why didn't I learn my lesson back then! Thank god I didn't connect through Toronto this year anyway.

I connected through Montreal Airport.
This is only two experiences to go by, but it's enough for me to want to avoid the Montreal airport from now on. Both times that was where I missed my critical connection, and both times I and fellow passengers were given misinformation that resulted in suffering, respectively: 1) standing in a line for 2 hours and 20 minutes, and 2) sprinting for 15 minutes with my carry-on. Both unnecessary, and the latter especially brutal considering a 76 year old priest was given the same advice. A staff member also screwed up my electronic ticket, in a way that caused a delay at my next connection and could have screwed up my return voyage too if the counter person hadn't caught it. Finally, the Montreal airport is the only place I've heard airport staff joke around at the expense of passenger misfortune, and that happened once each way.

I checked baggage for international travel.
If you have a checked bag, when you travel between the US and Canada (and some other types of international travel) you often have to pick up your baggage at the carousel and put it through security. I had a lot of presents to bring there and back, so it would have required some ingenuity to do without checked luggage, but I know for a fact that I would not have missed my connections both ways if it wasn't for the bag. I am definitely buying one of those wheeled maximum-allowed-size carry-on bags, a la George Clooney.

Given that I checked baggage, I made the connections too tight.

Since I'm my own travel agent (and doing a poor job of it), I have the power to decide how much time to leave for my connection. If I have to check luggage, I will leave no less than 90 minutes, ideally 2 hours, on the international leg. Remember that you will also need to go through security again, and potentially also customs.

I gave up on connections before I should have.

After I got my baggage, I saw that it was already the departure time for my flight. However, while I waited in the endless line to rebook my ticket, I noticed that the airplane was delayed 20 minutes, then another 20 minutes. From now on I'm going to proceed directly to the gate no matter what the time says, and only accept that I've missed it from the people at the gate.

I didn't talk to airport staff as much as I should have.

On at least one occasion I was reluctant to get the attention of a harried airport employee, and ended up doing the wrong thing. Ask them questions, early and often - some of them don't know what they're talking about, so you have to double and triple check.

I didn't use a checklist to pack.

I can't believe it, but I forgot to pack the one item besides my passport that I absolutely needed: my work visa. In the weeks before my flight, I remembered to buy presents for all my roommates, and christmas cards for my work mates, but I didn't remember that! If you want to know what happens when you are forced to go through customs with only a printed facsimile of your DS-2019 (because the US postal service lost the international overnight package with the real thing), I will tell you. First of all, as I suspected, it is entirely random and based on the whim of the particular customs official. I know this because I went through US customs at the same airport (the Montreal airport) twice, twelve hours apart. So here are two things that can happen:
  1. The customs official talks to his boss for 30 seconds and then lets you through with a warning.
  2. Your passport and boarding passes are taken away and, without explanation, you are taken to a different area, where you wait for 40 minutes. When you get to see a Department of Homeland Security officer, she threatens you with a $325 fine, disbelieves that the US postal service could have failed, and tells you, "if you're such a smart guy, how could this happen? You are not taking these documents seriously." Once you have grovelled for a sufficiently long time, you are let through (without the fine).
I'm sure there are much worse possibilities. It's all a roll of the dice. So I will use a checklist, that I store between trips and customize for each trip. I will physically check off each item, even if it seems unnecessary. I'm starting my checklist with the things I actually have forgotten on trips, much to my dismay: Visa, underwear, phone charger, swimsuit.

I didn't keep every piece of travel documentation.
I threw out a used boarding pass and my luggage tag, thinking they would only get in the way. However in the nonsense that followed, it turned out they would both have slightly smoothed the way. It's important to keep them organized, but hang on to everything until the journey is done.

Lessons I already knew (because of past screwups):
  • Don't plan multi-airline trips - way too risky. This way Air Canada had responsibility for rebooking my flights and putting me up when I missed my connections.
  • If you are late for a flight, talk to someone about shortcutting the security line.
  • Holiday travel just sucks. Chill as much as you can, and don't depend on arriving at a certain time.
  • Cling to your passport and boarding pass with all your might. I once dropped mine on the causeway of Lester B Pearson airport and was only saved by another passenger happening across it.
My experience this time is enough to almost make me want to go back to travel agents (if they still exist). Once I travelled to a conference instead of a professor and got to use his travel agent, and it was amazing. Not only were all the flights easy and comfortable, she figured out how I could get two nights in Amsterdam with no extra trouble, and all for a $60 fee. Even if I don't try that, I now have a huge respect for travel knowledge - it's easy to book your flights online, but booking them so that it isn't an ordeal is a trick. I paid for this knowledge, and I'm going to hang onto it.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Some Etiquette Tips (Mostly in the Form of What Not to Say)

I think a lot about social gracefulness, and how to be pleasant to hang
out with. To that end I think etiquette is very important, in a broad
sense of taking the perspective of the person you're talking to, and
trying to not do things that they would find annoying or tiresome
(unless you have a good reason). So I maintain a list of tips for
casually interacting with people, mostly as a reminder for myself. I
don't like that almost all of these are negative, what not to do, but it
doesn't take a lot of effort to avoid them, and you can get a long way
just by doing that. Very many of the tips boil down to not saying to
someone the dumb thing that people who meet them say all the time, and
that they are completely sick of. Like jokes about their name.

It's a work in progress - as are my manners - and these are only my
theories. Also, I definitely break these rules, sometimes for legitimate
exceptions and sometimes not.

Several of these come from my friend Jim Davies, and others, such as the
disabilities and divorced people ones, are adapted from internet sources
(as I say, I compiled this for myself originally, so I didn't keep the

When you hear someone's major, especially if it's in the humanities,
don't ask "what are you going to do with that?" Most people's jobs have
nothing to do with their major. Also, it's okay if people don't know
what they want to do with their lives when they're still in college, so
knock it off.

Don't tell people they look tired. If they feel tired, they know it, and
don't want to be reminded. If they don't, it will make them feel tired.
The same goes for "sick", "worried", "stressed", "upset".

Don't ask a graduate student what their thesis is about or when they're
planning on finishing by.

Don't ask people who just got married when they're planning to have
kids. Don't ask an engaged couple if they've set a date.

Don't ask veterans whether they killed anybody.

Don't make a joke based on someone's job that they just told you.

(Not everyone agrees with this one:) Never make a big deal over
someone's name. Don't make a joke about it, don't call it unusual, don't
compliment it, take care to get the pronunciation right without making a
fuss. The one exception: if they chose it for themselves, recently.

Try not to say things that imply the person you're talking to is an
idiot. Don't imply that the other person's actions or thoughts are part
of a bigger trend, or are because of a group they belong too, or have
been manipulated. Don't imply that the person doesn't know their own
mind. Especially: never attribute a woman's emotions on her menstrual
cycle or menopause. You may express only mild agreement with her if she
suggests it.

Don't second guess people's decisions that have already been irrevocably
made. (e.g. major purchases, career choices, creative choices for
published things, tattoos)

Don't interrogate people about their ethnic makeup. Especially not
people who appear to be of mixed race, since strangers literally come up
to them on the street and ask them, "what are you?" (I'm shocked that
this is the case - it's so incredibly rude)

If you have just met someone from a minority or country or alternative
sexuality or gender presentation that intrigues you, do not try to get
them to educate you about it as though they're the representative for
that group or country. Or at least take it easy on that until you've
gotten to know them in other ways.

There's almost never a need to tell someone that they already told you a
joke, fact or story before.

Don't ask kids what they learned today in school. I find it hard to
remember what I was doing at work the same day, and kids live even more
in the present, so talk to them about things that are closer at hand.

Never feed someone's pet people food without asking the owners first.
Same goes for kids.

Don't tell people that they look like someone else (whether celebrities
or real people). I know this one is hard.

Rarely leave voicemails. Send an email instead. Never leave second
voicemails with no new information.

Don't criticise your significant other, students or employees in front
of other people. Don't talk about a problem you're having with an
employee or student of yours to another employee or student.

Do not tell parents you hate kids; do not tell pet owners you hate pets.

Things that you can easily overestimate how interesting they will be to
other people: dreams, baby stuff, pet stuff, your travels, youtube
videos you saw.

Don't ask people questions that are traps.

Don't talk about getting older with people who aren't within about 5
years of the same age: both younger and older people find it irritating,
for different reasons.

Don't compliment people on losing weight, or otherwise get enthusiastic
over their appearance relative to their previous appearance.

Don't comment on makeup.

Don't ask a working mom, how do you juggle it all. (implies she's
screwing it up)

Don't question people's subjective impressions: how can you be cold?

Don't refer to people or groups as "exotic".

If someone is forced to wear a nametag for their job, don't use their
name off it (dick status move, where you are in effect pointing out
their lowliness relative to you)

Don't apologize except when you understand you've done something bad to
someone, and plan to change your ways. Or are forced to by some other
rule of social conduct.

Divorcing people
1. Do not congratulate them.
2. Do not tell them how you always knew they weren't going to make it.
3. Do not give them theories about the demise of the marriage.
4. Do not give them a timeline for when they "should" start to date/stop
crying/feel awesome/whatever.
5. Do not tell them to feel better because your aunt/friend/mom had a
horrible divorce.

Blind people or people with low vision:
- Try not to act embarassed or apologetic - this can be a way of
pointing out that you're making an extra effort for them.
- Say "may I shake your hand".
- When saying hello, especially for the first time, say who you are.
- Tell the person you're there, and tell them if you're leaving.
- Don't say "guess who this is"
- Don't worry about using sighted language, like, "See you later"
- Describe your gestures
- Speak at a normal volume and pace.
- Don't bring up the idea of heightened senses to compensate.
- Don't interrogate them about their exact level of vision impairment,
e.g. can you tell how many fingers I'm holding up?

Hard of hearing
- Face directly and enunciate a bit more, while not talking down to them.
- Don't ask interpreter to do physical assistance.
- Don't give something for each hand and then ask a question.

People with disabilities
- If someone uses a wheelchair, sit down to talk to them so they don't
have to crane their neck.
- Ask before you help, especially taking hold of someone's wheelchair.
But never ask someone in a wheelchair if they need help getting into
their car.
- Don't call people brave, or your inspiration. Don't say I wouldn't be
able to handle that.
- Talk to the person, not to the attendant.
- Don't touch, move, or lean on mobility aids.
- Don't ask people when they got disabled, or probe the exact extent of
their disability.
- Don't say, "you don't look sick". Keep in mind that many people have
disabilities that are invisible (e.g. arthritis of the hip in a young
person, torn ACL)
- Don't assume that they spend a lot of their time wishing they didn't
have their disability. (e.g. don't ask if they think about it, or what
they would do if healed)
- Don't say, at least it's not X.
- Don't question the wisdom of having kids.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

A Book Everyone Should Read: The Dip

I've been trying to get many people around me to read this book, The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) by Seth Godin:

It's expensive for how extremely short it is, but the one idea it contains is so powerful and important that it's well worth it. Basically the idea is that when you start some new thing, there's a period of exciting growth and reward, but then eventually it becomes an unrewarding slog (the dip). But if you pour enough energy into something for long enough, eventually you climb up the other side of the dip, and things get super awesome. That sometimes takes a ridiculous amount of energy, which means quitting a bunch of other things that are consuming your time and energy but where you're not determined to get out of the dip.

Having this idea in my head has changed the way I see so many things, and is already affecting the way I live my life. Most of all I want to stop the pattern I've had of starting things and then getting fed up when they start to require a massive investment just to make a tiny bit of progress - and then feeling resentful when I see the people who did put in that investment rather than quitting, and made it to other side of the dip where their life looks awesome. I'm going to start to value that period of grind for some small number of things, and for the rest quit them intentionally and cheerfully.

Here's a good companion piece to the book, with some additional handy terminology:

Monday, July 22, 2013

How to be Easy to Talk To: Turning Against, Turning Away, and Turning Towards

Why are some people really pleasant to talk to and some people not? Sometimes it's easy to put your finger on why, but not always. I think a lot of the strange friction we experience when talking to certain people can be explained by some concepts I read in psychologist John Gottman's book The Relationship Cure, that have always stayed with me.

He says that we often pay too much attention to what we say and do and not enough to how we respond to what the other person says and does. When someone tries to communicate with you, he calls that an "offer" (very similar to the improv usage), and there are three basic classes of response to offers: turning against, turning away, and turning towards. These are great terms, because you can guess the meaning from them, and also guess which ones are likely to hurt your connection with the other person and which ones are likely to strengthen it.

But it's not always obvious which one you're doing, so I'm going to use an example to show some types of reaction that are more subtly abrasive.

Your friend Matt: "Hey, I just saw Pacific Rim! The robots were fricking cool."

Your response:

This is turning the person's offer into an opening to attack them, in a way that might make them wish they hadn't said anything. But this might not be large or overt, or intentional. For example:

- "Yeah, all my nerd friends I've talked to are really excited." You're implying that his reaction is because of his membership in a group, not his own perceptions. (calling him a nerd might also be insulting, depending on the person.)

- "Ha ha, I haven't heard 'fricking' in a while." You're jumping on a surface aspect of his quickly-improvised speech, rather than engaging with the contents. The same goes for pointing out a grammatical or word usage error.

- "I have to remember you haven't seen that much Kaiju. The robots in Neon Genesis Evangelion are even cooler." You're using this as an opportunity to flaunt your own knowledge, and imply that he's something of a dupe.

- "That movie had a terrible script." You're attacking the thing he's trying to express enthusiasm about, without anything to transition or soften it.

- "I'm not really into the summer blockbuster thing." Again, implying that Matt is a dupe, and you're on a higher plain.

- "Um, those are not really robots. Technically, they're cyborgs." You're challenging facts in his statement that aren't that relevant to what he's trying to say. (again, keeping in mind the "quickly improvised" aspect of this)


This is simply failing to acknowledge or engage with the person's offer. For example, checking your phone, mumbling something noncommital without making eye contact, continuing with what you were saying before, or interrupting them in the middle to make a joke or comment on their means of expression (which might also constitute turning against). A subtler example of turning away:

- "That reminds me of this awesome tin robot I bought at the flea market." You're wrenching the conversation away to something that's on your mind, rather than engaging with what they said.


What's the best way to respond to an offer? Of course in some situations you want to be a dick to someone, and sometimes it's fun to be a pretend-dick to a good friend (although you have to be careful that it's on a strong background of affection and respect). In many cases something may be more important than the pleasantness of the conversation, like getting a job done. But you have to be aware of when you're turning against and turning away. Even if the other person seems not to notice, or even laughs at what you said, there's a good chance they're annoyed, though maybe below the threshold of consciousness. If you want someone to feel closer to you, and trust and like you, you have to resist that every time. Gottman's idea was that relationships are built step by tiny step: every time you notice someone has made an offer to you, which usually happens many times in a conversation, and restrain yourself from turning against or turning away from that offer.

Instead you have to turn towards the offer. That means listening carefully to the intent behind it, and at the very least acknowledging that you've heard that. In this case, all you would need would be to make eye contact, smile and go, "Cool, man!" That's it. If you wanted to go further, you might ask Matt open-ended questions, even just in the form of "oh yeah?". You could also ask, "tell me about one you liked!" And then keep your mouth shut. If you don't get the feeling he's dying to expand on the initial statement, you could talk about your own thing, if it connects with the *emotion*. So in this case, the emotion is appreciating or finding something cool in art. "I love how good special effects are now. I wish they'd been able to make monsters like that when I was a kid." But in general it's a lot of active listening, and letting the person get through all of what they wanted to say - even leaving a little pause to be sure - then acknowledging it at the end.

The response doesn't necessarily need to be positive. You could disagree, but in a way that acknowledges their offer and shows respect for the feeling that prompted it. "They didn't work for me that well - too many gadgets for my taste."


So much of social skill is just noticing when someone is reaching out to you, and making them feel glad they did. That way they'll want to keep doing it. It seems simple, but I see nerdy guys especially mess this up all the time (and I'm including myself in that). Even if you never have clever things to say, if you acknowledge the person's intent (turn towards) and don't jump on their words (turn against) or ignore what they're trying to say (turn away) people will find you easy to talk to.

Note that this applies to electronic communication just as much, maybe more so since you've theoretically taken time to compose it. Leaving an email sitting there for a long period of time can be a type of turning away, and often you're better off writing a shorter reply sooner, with the goal of aknowledging their offer as soon to the moment of writing as possible.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

How to Keep Files Private on Your Hard Drive

Sometimes you need privacy on your computer. Maybe it’s you and your partner having certain photos you don’t want the computer repair place to find, maybe you need to keep sensitive records from work safe, or maybe you just want a “partition of one’s own” as I describe in my essay about creativity, a space on the hard drive where you can feel free to experiment without shared users of the computer happening across it. In this age of operating systems automatically scanning and indexing the contents of files, and multiple menus showing the most recently opened documents, it’s not enough to give a file a misleading name or hide it in an obscure folder. Sooner or later it will pop up.

The only solution is cryptography: using powerful mathematical techniques to scramble the contents of a file so that only people who possess the password can open it. And this type of protection is within your grasp.

If the file is a Microsoft Word document, you can use the Password to Open feature, which is found under the File -> Preferences and then the Security tab. According to Wikipedia this is very strong protection if it’s Word 2007 or later (and earlier is probably ok for discouraging kids or non technical people in your life from breaking into the files).

If you’re using a Mac, then a simple, built-in way to do this is through an encrypted disk image. This is a file that, when opened, acts like you inserted a USB stick into your computer, presenting a drive on your desktop that you can move files in and out of. A nice thing about using a disk image is that if you do all your work within it, there’s nothing to clean up when you’re done - it even locks back up automatically when you shut down your computer. To create an encrypted disk image, open the program called Disk Utility, which is found in the Utilities folder, in the Applications folder. Go to File -> New, and choose Blank Disk Image... Pick a size that can reasonably hold what you want it to hold, and where it says Encryption choose 256-bit AES Encryption. When you click Create it will ask you for a password.

If you’re not on a Mac, and it’s not a Word file, the best thing to do is to use the powerful, free encryption tools that go under the label GPG. To get set up, which includes making what are called a public and a secret key (but for our purposes amounts to a password), check out the instructions I wrote, and follow steps 1-3 for your platform. Then to encrypt the file on a PC, follow the instructions halfway down these docs for gpg4win, where it says “18.2 Encrypting and decrypting files”. Basically right click the file, choose Sign and Encrypt, and then Encrypt. Make sure your key is on the list. Click Encrypt. (On a Mac, using GPG Tools, right click the file, and choose Services, then “Open PGP: Encrypt” from the submenus. Again, make sure to choose yourself as one of the people who are allowed to open it!)

You should now have a file with the extension .gpg. Just to make sure it's valid, do a trial decryption of it, by right clicking and choosing the decrypt command for your platform, and checking that you get the same thing you put in (don’t delete the original until you’ve done this - so there should now be two copies of it). If you have multiple files, you can zip them first.

(Note that these are practically all the steps needed for making an encrypted file that others can open too, without having to exchange passwords. You just need to have imported their public key (step 4), and added them to the list of valid openers in a previous dialogue box.)

You’re not done yet. You have to get rid of the original. When you delete a file on a computer, it doesn't actually disappear: the data is all still there on the disk, it just is marked as blank and ready for reuse. So there are plenty of tools that could recover it, and might do so even inadvertently, e.g. if your hard drive crashed and you brought it to a computer shop. The information has to be deleted in a special way to actually get rid of those bytes, typically by overwriting zeros or random data. On the Mac there is something called Secure Empty Trash, right beside Empty Trash, that will probably do the trick. But I believe on the PC you need special software. I don’t have a firm recommendation, except that one called File Shredder is free and apparently not sleazy.

One caution is that it’s very difficult to keep the *existence* of secret files a secret, especially if you access it regularly (because of “Recently Opened” menus and the like) Typically the best you can do is to give things nondescript names, and rely on any shared users respecting that everyone needs a little private space. But it's a problem.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

How to Become a Creative Person











When I say creative person, I don’t mean a character trait of creativity (which I don’t believe is a real thing). I mean very specifically a person who a) make things that are b) cultural products, c) consistently. When I say cultural products, I mean things that have the potential to expose the creator. Writing scientific papers or making crafts requires creative problem solving, but does not tend to reveal important things about yourself, in the way that a play, a painting or a serious memoir might. The consistency part is important too: everyone has made *something* at some time or another, but I’m interested in the case where it's a regular part of your lifestyle - now, not at some time in the past.

I would say about half my friends are creative people: they are making cultural products all the time. Of the half who don’t, most of them are just fine with it. However this post is for that slice of people who would be happier being a creative person, but aren’t for whatever reason. They consume cultural products all the time, have strong opinions about them, and have fantasized about having things of their own that they made, but are not doing it.

I recently started making stuff, and I want to share how I got past the barrier. These will be most useful to people who have similar brains to mine, and are being blocked by similar things. I’m going to expand on that list at the beginning of the post, at great length, but first a few words about the question: why make things?

Here’s why not to do it: to get approval. As in, praise or attention or status. First of all, when you first start making things, you’re basically a baby, and chances are it’s not going to turn out very well. If you’re older, you’ll definitely progress faster, and have a lot more life experience to draw on, but it’s still going to take a bunch of years before you’re making things that people outside of your immediate circle are going to want to look at. In terms of money, it’s always been hard to make a living making culture, and it gets so much harder all the time, so you can’t even think about that. Second, if you’re thinking about approval, it can block you up from exploring wilder things you might want to explore. Third, there’s just the practicality that it is hard to get things in front of the right audience for it. There’s a whole other set of skills that come into play, basically marketing and hustle.

Basically it takes a lot of both experience and luck to make something that turns out well and gets acclaim - just think about the most successful and well-established artists you know, and how even they can’t control how everything they make turns out. So how much harder is it going to be for you? It’s a whole separate thing from what I think you should be deriving satisfaction from, which is being productive and following the regime you’ve laid out for yourself. You just have to make things and not care whether they turn out well.

(If I had to venture a theory of what it takes to make things that turn out well, it would be a) making enough things so that some of them hit the mark b) making so many things over time that you build up powerful skills, and most of all c) coming back to a particular thing over and over and over and over, making it better each time, and showing it to different people to get different kinds of feedback. Just investing a huge amount into redoing something. Notice that none of these are innate talent, or having an amazing idea).

Making cultural products is making a million decisions, one after another, and concentrating hard over a long cumulative period of time. I’m going to focus on the scenario of making things without a partner and without a deadline, because that’s as hard as it gets. (collaborating can’t be a *break* from the responsibility of making all those decisions - that’s how crappy, lazy things get inflicted upon audiences - so it’s better if you are ready to shoulder the whole burden)

So why put in that effort, if not to get praise, or any money or recognition whatsoever? (I’m a believer in the Onion model for creative hobbies)

1) To engage more with the world. This seems paradoxical, but for me anyway going away into my lair to make cultural products encouraged me to pay more attention to the world, and become a better observer. Things you see in regular life can be much more wondrous and amusing when you’re thinking about how to use them in your creations. It can become a habit. I think of Philip in Of Human Bondage, challenged about the value of studying painting when he ended up dropping out: “I learned to look at hands, which I'd never looked at before. And instead of just looking at houses and trees I learned to look at houses and trees against the sky. And I learned also that shadows are not black but coloured.”

2) To engage more with art. When you start making things, you’ll find yourself much more appreciative and forgiving of cultural products - you’ll see that flaws are often need to be there for other parts to work, and that many little bits are done wonderfully even if the thing as a whole isn’t so successful. There are always things to learn from, and apply to your own creations, and you’ll be able to see much more deeply into the heart of the art you love once you’ve tried to solve similar problems in your own work. The growth of your taste will accelerate, and how much you learn from each thing you take in will multiply.
WARNING: That said, starting to try to make a particular artform will destroy your ability to enjoy it in the same way ever again. Consuming it will now feel a little bit like homework, and you might find yourself avoiding it as a fun-time activity. This is a genuine downside to making things.

3) You can make your own action. When there are no texts and your social networks are silent, you can do something that feels real and positive, and not like it’s just killing time. When a creative project is really rolling, it’s like an invisible forcefield against boredom, loneliness, discomfort, and heartache. Any tedious meeting can be an opportunity to work out problems. You might appear to be sitting quietly on the subway, but there are whole worlds turning around in there. It’s important to know that creative projects won’t feel like that all the way through, but at certain times you’ll be absolutely on fire.

4) It’s fun to see what comes out. I’ve found less than half the creativity is in my initial inspiration, and more than half comes out when I actually sit down to try to make it. It’s amazing how your brain will come up with something to instantly fill holes that are created as you go along, holes you didn't even realize were there until you tried to set it down. On a different note, your final product will necessarily be composed of the kind of stuff that fascinates you and is on your wavelength, and works through the things that are concerning you. It's not hard to create at least the *type* of art you would love to happen across - if not the quality.

5) You’re building creative muscle that may be of practical use. I don’t want to play up this one, since if it’s for your job, say, there are probably way more efficient ways of using the time to hone your skills or knowledge, but if you’re having a good time because of 1-4, there’s no reason why not to receive this benefit. The skills in expressing yourself might be useful for your job or other hobbies, and simply practicing making yourself do the hard thing of filling a blank canvas, over and over, is such an important thing.

Therefore, onto my tips. Most are not really original, being inspired by writings by Keith Johnstone, Ira Glass, and many other people, but this is the way I’ve synthesized them for myself - this is a manifesto for me, who is only beginning to make things, even more than for any potential reader.

It takes an astonishing amount of time to finish even the shitty first version of something. I mean just for the time to actually do the typing, move the brush, etc, not counting the time for planning, and for bashing your way through problems. And not getting into revisions at all, which take a multiple of the original time. So just to get started, you have to figure out when you’re going to put in that time. And it’s likely going to have to be focused, uninterrupted time, which is hard to come by in big stretches for most of us.

But the good news is that if you can figure out how to put in solid half hours on a frequent basis, that can accomplish an enormous amount over time. You might write for half an hour before breakfast every morning - my friend Jim Davies wrote an entire book that way, which is now being published. Sunday evenings are a good time for me. Any kind of regular schedule can be helpful, because your body and mind will rev up to do the work at a certain time (so it doesn’t require so much willpower), and you’ll start to have ideas in anticipation of the session, while not having to feel guilty for not working at other times. That kind of regularity isn’t always possible, but the work has to keep getting done - I would say aiming for no more than a week between sessions, even if it’s just a 20-30 minutes engagement.

Once in a while you’ll feel inspired and want to work on it long into the night. But the reality is that putting in time on your creative projects isn’t always going to feel fun. In the words of Paul F. Tompkins: “Having written? That is the best. The part where you have to tell your fingers to tap the appropriate keys on the keyboard? Blegh. You can keep it.” Often, many other things you could be doing seem more attractive - and definitely a lot easier. If you’re really trying to finish things, and not just ending up with a bunch of half pages of ideas, sometimes you’re going to have to force yourself to work.

Basically any trick or advice you can find, from any source, is worth considering if it will help you a) start working and b) keep working during the time allotted. One of the only ways I’ve been able to consistently put in time on personal creative projects is using a program called Freedom, which shuts off your computer’s access to the internet for a set period of time. I’d feel sad that I need that, but apparently Jonathan Franzen does too. Besides the reduction in temptation, it also acts as a handy timer, so I know, “hey, I put in 30 minutes of solid effort”. Other approaches might be to get a buddy to check in on you, or use an automated system to track your production. One novellist I heard interviewed said that she puts on the soundtrack to Mortal Kombat every time she sits down to write, and that helps her to shut out the world and signal to her brain that she is now in work mode. Experiment on yourself. Try everything.

When thinking about yourself as a creative person, it’s tempting to imagine yourself working in an artform that is considered prestigious, or at least “normal”. Like a poem, a painting, or a realistic novel. But is that what you voraciously consume? If you read supernatural romances practically every day, and have strong opinions about the good and bad ones, something in that ballpark is what you should work on. You probably have highly refined taste for that artform, which I think is an important step to making something good, or at least having no trouble finding ideas you want to play with. Take prestige and approval out of the equation.

Of course it is possible to shift your interests, by changing your consumption habits. But will it ever run as deep as the things that you’ve been consuming for many years? Maybe getting really good at making animated gifs will be your creative outlet. Or tweets. Anything can give those kind of rewards if you put some willpower and longterm commitment into them.

This is important for people who have the same hangup that I do, which is basically vanity. It’s uncomfortable to watch my fingers type something that’s not good. I want to be making good things! But I believe in this rule for a few reasons: first, as soon as you actually finish a thing, it becomes dramatically more useful. You can give it a name, show it to other people to get help, and make use of even this not-so-good version in a surprising number of applications. You certainly can give yourself credit for it at that point.

Second, it will jumpstart your creativity for the project. It’s a lot easier to improve something than to start with a blank piece of paper. And your draft serves as a map of the territory, clearly showing the areas that need a lot more thought and care - which also helps you to estimate how much more work is needed. The combination of pride and shame whenever you think of that complete draft will drive your subconscious to beaver away on the outstanding problems. Third, when you get a version of an idea down, it frees up that slot in your mind to have another idea. So you get a boost to creativity *outside* of that project too.

Note that there’s a difference between finishing a version of a piece that’s not so good, and not properly finishing it. You’ll know it in your heart. Like avoiding tackling a section you know will be a pain in the butt. Much better to fill that in with a shitty version, than to leave in a line that says “insert cool action sequence” (or a 100 word version of something you know should be 500 words). That attempt to tackle it, even if a failure, will pave the way to future victory.

Many people have had success with setting up a schedule to finish smaller things on a regular basis. In fact, being forced to produce something regularly, like a radio show or comic book issue or television episode, is how a lot of famous creative people built up their creative strength quickly. It’s great if you can find a structure that will force that, but if you do it on your own, then you’re ahead of the game. Every time you finish a smaller project, you get a little motivation boost. If it’s a total dud, no big loss because you’re finishing another one next week. And you get to try a lot of different things.

What if the artform you truly love is novels, or some other longform creative product? This is risky when you’re first starting out, because you might be committing to an idea for a novel that’s not going to work. Maybe you’re okay with abandoning novels 50 pages in, over and over, but many people would find that sapping their motivation after a while. This is why I think the National Novel Writing Month is flawed, despite being a great fit for many of my points here. Why not National Write 20 Short Stories Month? As a last argument for trying shortform, most novellists I know published short stories before novels, and in the field of science fiction half the classic novels are expanded short stories (Ender’s Game, Permutation City, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Blood Music) or even just a bunch of short stories stapled together (City, The Martian Chronicles).

One tip from the David Allen school for finishing is to draw a clear line between projects you are and aren’t committed to. I would suggest a literal list of projects you are seriously trying to finish, that you update weekly (as in, take things off or put things on). You can collect ideas for the ones you’re not committed to, but until they’re on the list you have to be disciplined about not spending your serious work time on them - that’s a form of procrastination. Also if you take care to formally ditch projects you’re not keen on anymore, that frees up psychic energy for the ones you really want to finish.

When you tell people about something you’re planning to make, you get a portion of the reward, without the effort and risk it takes to finish something. If you’re not careful, that can be a loan that won’t get repayed: it might sap your will to actually sit down and finish things. It can also be a trap to show people unfinished things, for the same reason. Plus unfinished things are less satisfying to consume, and you can use up the goodwill of your readers or viewers (whose attention you should be very grateful for). Also, potentially super embarassing, especially in the eyes of people who never make art themselves and so don’t understand how awkward things look in their early stages.

But how to keep your unfinished or sensitive work secret? If it’s work that’s done on a computer, I advocate using cryptography, which puts a very secure lock on your private files. That way people sharing your computer won’t accidentally run into it, nor will it turn up on searches. Even if you die suddenly it’s likely that no one without the password will be able to access the contents. It’s a little room of one’s own where you can feel free to explore to whatever extremes you like.

This helps to dissociate approval from the satisfaction of finishing things. You can’t count on liking everything you make well enough that other people should see it. Sometimes you need to sit on things a while to know whether you’re ok with sharing it. And some things you’ll want to keep private for good.

The previous two are prerequisites for this one. These are all things that I think are tremendous blocks to creativity for some people, to even sitting down in the first place, even more than being afraid of making things that aren’t good. But if you keep projects secret until some version of them is done, and make more things than you show people, there’s no reason not to try everything that might inspire you. Let’s take these individually:

- Expose too much of yourself. If your creativity comes from your own experience and your own emotions, as it should, it may expose things that don’t fit with the image of yourself you would wish to present to the world. Like say you write eight short stories, and the first one is about a lonely mushroom, and the second about a lonely acrobat, and the third about a lonely seahorse and so on. You would be embarassed for someone to see them all, because together they seem to reveal that you’re very lonely. And yet if that’s the mood you’re inspired to write about, that’s what you should write. Once you have finished it, you have the power to show some of them to people, or none of them. Things you make might reveal that you’re uncool, or uncultured, or ignorant about some important things about the world, or that your life sucks. You might find out things you don’t like about yourself. You have to be ok with that.

- Expose too much of other people. You may be driven to make things inspired by real people, that would hurt them if they were to see it. Or at least make things weird with them. If you create in secret, you can get it out of your system, and decide whether to change details to conceal who it is – or merely use parts of them to inspire future fictional creations. This is one reason why I think blogs can be a trap as a creative outlet: your mom will probably find it. And so you become a politician, and can never quite say what you’re dying to say, and those thoughts are lost even to your own memory eventually. I’m a big fan of Harriet the Spy, and its message of how valuable it is to be able to write what you really want to write, no matter how potentially hurtful. As her mentor Ole Golly says, “Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.”

- Obscene. If you grew up in a household that was fairly modest, and never really rebelled against it, then this can be an invisible barrier. It can be very freeing to write something with elements that are extremely sexual or gruesome, or that feature an immoral or destructive character. Maybe your ambition isn't to become Clive Barker or Barbara Gowdy, but knowing that you have the ability to go to very dark or passionate places might unlock your creativity. There are plenty of well-respected artists out there fantasies at least as messed up as the worst thought that’s crossed your mind, and most of them that I’ve read about are perfectly well adjusted in their personal lives.

- Psychotic. “This thing I’m making is the dumbest, most insane thing I’ve ever seen. If my friends saw this, they would think I’m having a schizophrenic break.” Again, this might be the place you need to go. A good exercise might be to make the most obscene, psychotic, self-exposing thing you can imagine. That you would be horrified if anyone were to see it. It might turn out interesting, and it might unlock something. (This makes me think of U and I by Nicholson Baker, a book-length essay about how much he wishes he were friends with John Updike. Someone asked him if it was embarassing to write, and he said, “Oh yeah! I had to force myself to type every word!” And yet this is an actual published book, and an entertaining one too.)

- Boring. On the other side of the coin, you can’t get hung up on whether your imagination is too tame or boring either. You just might not be that extreme - or, more likely, your version of extreme might look different than the stereotypical kind. You have to follow the thread of your own interest, whereever it may go. Since I mentioned Nicholson Baker, he wrote an entire book about card catalogues, and another which is a novel about mundane observations during a single escalator ride. And they were not boring. As long as you find it compelling, you can’t think about whether other people will judge you as boring for it.

- Unoriginal. This one is almost as big as self-exposure. If you consume a lot of art, you might be really blocked up by how hard it is to come up with something genuinely new. Don’t worry about it. If you’re not looking to earn money, or win praise for how original you are, you can start from whereever feels exciting to you. For example, fan fiction. Many people grow to become strong storytellers, and find interesting things to say, writing Harry Potter fan fiction or other such things. Though this is a secondary argument, very many recognized artists write fan fiction, in the form of authorized spinoffs. Every tv writer and comic book writer who isn’t the show’s creator is essentially doing this too. (Is the creativity involved in building a fictional world more praiseworthy than that of telling a story in an existing world? I would say that’s highly debatable.) Never abandon an idea just because you hear it’s already been done. (and never tell someone their idea has already been done) Never question whether you’re creative enough. You should also feel free to repeat yourself. You might hit the same idea again and again for years, never quite nailing it, until one day, you’re ready. If you’ve made enough stuff, especially if they’re secret, you can loot them for parts, or just let them fertilize something new.

Of course, even if you take some time to sit on a project before releasing it for other people to look at, things still might be revealed through them that you don’t want people to know, or else false impressions you’re not happy with might be created. But if you’re making things all the time, that’s not your only chance to make an impression, and what you are trying to get across will eventually make it.

(Note that while this whole post is heavily inspired by improv teacher Keith Johnstone’s books Impro and Impro for Storytellers, the title of this point is very close to his quote: “The truth is that the best ideas are often psychotic, obscene and unoriginal.”)

The big reason for this one is to make it seem normal to be making things. The reason is not to have people from whom to get approval. (nice things said about your work by your friends should probably be given the same weight as Facebook “likes”: a mixture of real feedback and social courtesy, and you never know how much of each). Sometimes you’ll get the reaction from someone that it’s amazing that you’re making things, “I could never do that.” I think this is often a mild social sanction: they’re saying what you’re doing is special, but a little abberent. Enough of that and it could undermine your resolve. And that’s assuming you have nice people around you, and not shitty, judgmental people who will tear down your work (and are probably not making things themselves). Much better to hang out with people who are not only supportive, but finish things all the time.

In an improv class, every person in the class creates things constantly. They’re not preselected to be super creative, it’s just that it’s expected. It doesn’t matter what you choose, as long as you choose something. Every once in a while I have to stop and marvel at how rare that is in the adult world. Many of us can go years without making something that risks exposing ourselves. It’s great when you can be around people where it’s expected, and you don’t get approval just for the *intention* to make things. You should seek out environments where you can’t possibly get any points just for calling yourself a writer or artist.

Note that *it doesn’t matter whether you care for everything these folks make*. It might even be inspiring if you see problems in the end products. *Not that you should ever tell them about it.* Nor should you offer calibrated approval. I believe the best approach is to cheerlead your friends in a generic way, encouraging them to finish things, without passing God-like judgment on the final product (the very same God-like voice in your head that makes it hard for you to create). Sure you might have the drive to give strong and sincere praise for something that they made. But then if you don’t care for their next thing, will you stay silent? Or fake the same level of enthusiasm? Praise the process and the commitment, not how it turns out.

It’s obvious that feedback is critical for making things better. But I’m in favour of finishing a version of the thing first, as I said earlier. And like I said in the previous point, friendly acquaintance feedback is not real feedback. On the other hand, you will develop a small circle of trusted friends you can show things too, who can give suggestions for how to make it better, while respecting your feelings and the integrity of the work. That’s a precious thing.

It can be tempting to latch on to a guru or mentor, and in fact someone like that can accelerate your progress. But it’s also dangerous if you become dependent on that person’s approval (and some mentors will seek to cultivate that dependence). Ultimately you’re trying to develop your own taste to a high level, and please yourself, and what other people can offer is an outside perspective. Therefore any collection of smart, trustworthy people with good taste should do. Oh, and they should be making things, even if in a different artform.

The thing is that if you have your factory going, no one criticism can clam you up: there’s plenty more of your work coming down the line, and plenty more chances to try it again. Your ego isn’t tied up in any one thing. Feedback might give you a course adjustment, but you have plenty of momentum on your own. You’re not looking for somebody else’s permission to proceed.

I’m considering the advice that when it comes to that point, far down the line, you should actually weight objective feedback more heavily than that of acquaintances. Things like: YouTube or webpage views. Laughter of strangers in a club. Real, competitive awards. Acceptance of your book for publication. How much you can sell a piece of art for. Obviously these are extremely noisy measures, and everyone can think of examples of things that unfairly did or didn’t receive those credits. But they should be able to tell you when you’re truly onto something good, or when you’ve wandered far off track, which the people around you won’t necessarily do. The one critical point: do not compare these metrics with other people’s - only with those of other things you’ve made.

By far the most important thing is making the time to sit down and work on your projects, which is why I made it number 1, but it might help to examine how you’re spending the rest of the time. I’d like to say it’s the time spent going out and having unique experiences in the world that will provide the most inspiration, but it is hard to say in general what is a good or bad use of your time: a YouTube deep dive into Tamil vampire movies might be exactly what you need to get fired up. As with your own work, you have to listen to what you find compelling, and follow that thread deeper into it.

A caution is that if you don’t yet trust yourself to finish things, it’s a bad idea to explicitly start projects with research. It can be a way to avoid making all those millions of choices. Instead, just start writing, and do the research afterwards, or simultaneously. E.g. if you want to write a historical story set in Egypt, just make it all up out of what you already have in your brain, and then fix it later based on research (which will be very fun and engaging, because you will know just where you can use things).

As far as time spent consuming other people’s cultural products, here’s my ranking of them in descending order of how inspiring I think they are:
- Cultural products from my friends
- The highest quality cultural products
- Terrible, or just random, cultural products
- Mediocre cultural products (Man of Steel)

I’ve come to see new mainstream movies as a pretty low efficiency use of your time, if you want to improve what you’re making. Before any movie comes out, there’s a giant military campaign of hype that is trying to make that movie seem alluring, and even necessary. But you’re just having the same prepackaged experience as everyone else, so it’s not going to make your mind or art more interesting. Not to mention the fact that it’s probably marketed to your precise demographic slice. So it would almost be more valuable to close your eyes and take a DVD at random from the store to watch, and become intensely involved with its world and what it does well or poorly. But it’s still better to make up your own stories, alone or with friends - pay attention to the balance of time you spend creating vs consuming. (and movies are only a 90 minute investment of time - spending hours watching a heavily hyped TV show seems like an even bigger potential misuse of a time, unless what you’re writing is screenplays).

It’s also important to leave room for boredom. With portable electronics, it’s possible to be entertained basically all the time. But your brain needs time to chew problems over, which it can’t when it’s being entertained. A lot of people have said that they get their best ideas in the shower or on their commute - time when they are not forcing themselves to think about the problem, but rather to just move things around and put them next to each other, and otherwise follow little byways in a much looser way (randomly, I published a book chapter about this very topic!) Screenwriter Alex Epstein mentioned that he gets his best ideas 10 minutes after he’s stepped away from his work. Which probably wouldn’t happen if those 10 minutes are full of Parks and Rec.

I have a theory that it can be counterproductive to listen to too many interviews with highly successful creative people. You can get hints from it, but it also puts them on a pedestal, often above the people making art around you, which could make creating seem like something only special minority of people should do. Plus people being interviewed often give what I think is a misleading account of their creative process, making it seem like they had a clear destination in mind and travelled directly towards it, whereas the real road to a final product is very windy, with more collaboration than is usually admitted to. If you’re not careful, listening or reading to too many interviews with successful people can become a kind of self-indulgent fantasizing, and not a great use of your time. The same thing goes for reading books or blogs of advice: take it easy on those until your engine is well in motion.


There’s nothing wrong with deciding not to put energy into creative projects - many people don’t have that energy to spare, or have no secret desire to make things. But consider whether it’s something that might give you a lot of satisfaction, and whether you are only held back by fear, or just not making up your mind to do it. I’ll finish with a couple of inspirational quotations:

“Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” — Kurt Vonnegut.

“You are not imaginatively impotent until you are dead; you are only frozen up.” — Keith Johnstone